Performance Breakdown: Of Montreal's Kevin Barnes Interviewed
, October 6th, 2010 03:56
As Of Montreal hit the UK, Al Denney talks to Kevin Barnes about the influence of Parliament on False Priest and the history of 'The Past Is A Grotesque Animal', one of our favourite songs of the last decade
Athens, GA’s Of Montreal were a pleasant fixture on the indie-pop firmament for more than a decade before depression, divorce and a well-documented bit of madness involving a fortysomething, transsexual alter-ego collided with frontman Kevin Barnes’ world and sent the band spinning off in ever wilder trajectories.
Quietus ed John Doran reckons Barnes might be some kind of genius, but that feels like too premeditated a word, somehow – he’s more a compulsive truth-teller; a keenly perceptive fellow whose desire to take a magnifying glass to the fine print of his soul leads him just as often to moments of pathological ugliness as it does pockets of transcendence.
Whatever the semantics, Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer? was quite simply one of the most beautiful meltdowns ever set to wax, with ‘The Past Is A Grotesque Animal’ the darkly circling eye of the storm. A twelve-minute, depressive’s tract written from a cabin in the Norwegian countryside, it’s a little like Bergman’s Hour Of The Wolf set to a krautrock groove, and as such completely unfuckwithable. To celebrate the track’s rerecording for a forthcoming Spike Jonze short film, we asked Barnes about its genesis, aftermath and exactly how much his missus minds him taking a hammer to his id in public.
Since Kev is exactly the kind of stand-up Southern gent we always like to hear more from at The Quietus, we also found time to ask him about the latest full-length dispatch from his band’s salty canon, the campily brilliant False Priest.
You’re releasing a new version of ‘The Past Is A Grotesque Animal’ featuring Nick Zinner and members of The Moonrats, can you tell us how that came about?
Kevin Barnes: I guess it was Spike Jonze’s idea, he contacted me and said he wanted to have a special cover version. He’s really good friends with Nick (Zinner) so he put us in touch with each other, and Nick and some of his friends created a track and sent it to me. Then I cut my vocals and sent it back to them.
I wasn’t involved in the musical production of it. I have a lot of respect for the people involved so I knew they’d do something cool with it, they had carte blanche really. I was just really excited to hear what they would do with it. The only direction Spike gave was that he took out certain lyrics he didn’t want to be there, just because it’s such a long track. I mean the song is basically a four-chord vamp on a loop, you can pick out any of the lyrics and it’ll be fine.
It was kinda cool ‘cos I wrote and recorded the song almost at the same time and when I did the lyrics I just happened to throw them together that way. I’ve played that song hundreds of times, but with the new version when I cut the vocal track I could incorporate things I’d done in live performances of the song. So the re-recording is impacted by all the times I’ve played it over the years; I sang it differently.
That must be a difficult song to play live on a regular basis.
KB: Definitely. I always feel sort of emotionally spent afterwards, but at the same time it feels very exciting and empowering. It’s just this really massive emotional workout, and at the end of the song you just kind of fall to the ground.
The song feels like a centrepiece for Hissing Fauna. How much of album did you have written at that point?
KB: It’s weird with that record ‘cos the way the tracks are arranged is basically the order I wrote them in. After I wrote that I was able to exorcise my demons or whatever and felt able to write poppier stuff. I actually edited it down, the real version is like sixteen or seventeen minutes long. But I had to cut it to make it more palatable.
Amazing! I’d be curious to know what got left out.
KB: It was really just more of the same. I could have written a whole album out of that song because of what it’s about – my wife Nina and I’s relationship dissolving and all the pressure I was feeling, the chaos, anxieties and all of that. It was a very insane period in my life. I’d been writing and writing and I had so much material I could have put into that song, but at a certain point I felt like people would just want to eject the CD and throw it out of the window.
Artistically the record was hailed as a breakthrough, did it feel that way at the time?
KB: I think it has a weight to it, an emotional strength to it that a lot of other records don’t have, a lot of our records are more abstract and poppy and fun. There was no primal scream element to them, they’re fairly balanced or whatever. And Hissing Fauna’s the first one that deals with a lot of psychological issues, just because of what I was going through at the time. It has more of an emotional impact than previous records and it definitely helped to establish us in a way. I actually was using the creative process as a form of therapy but it wasn’t really working, I was hoping if I wrote these songs I would get healthy again.
Does that seem like wishful thinking in hindsight?
KB: It’s the same thing that always drives me to create art, to create a world that’s better than the one I’m living in physically or mentally. So I mean the same source of inspiration is always there regardless of how I’m feeling. It’s always trying to create this secondary world that I have more control of or is more romantic or poetic or funny or whatever it is.
Just coming back to ‘The Past...’ specifically, were you surprised at all by the violence of the imagery in that song?
KB: Well I felt like a trapped animal, and I think that when that happens you’re capable of things you wouldn’t be if you were just skipping through some flowery garden or whatever.
Were you prepared for the interest that record sparked in your private life?
KB: I’m not sure it did. I can understand if people are curious, it doesn’t bother me. I performed naked on stage. I’m not too concerned about privacy or keeping things secret for myself.
What about some of the literary allusions in there? There’s that line, “I fell in love with the first cute girl that I saw/ who could appreciate Georges Bataille/ standing at a Swedish festival, discussing Story Of The Eye." Is Bataille a big influence on your work generally?
KB: Definitely. It really is true though, that lyric... I had this idea about a fantasy woman who’s really into Bataille and can understand him or not be freaked out by him. When I met Nina that was the first thing that impressed me about her. I was always looking for someone who could teach me things and stimulate me at all levels, and I hadn’t met anyone like that. So it’s true that we were at a Swedish festival, we were hanging out and talking about George Bataille so that’s highly autobiographical.
It’s quite the opening gambit, as chat-up lines go.
KB: That’s just how I roll, ha-ha. When you first meet someone you test the waters, I wasn’t trying to impress or anything, I was just hoping to be impressed. But when you’re meeting someone... sometimes I’ll act really idiotic just to see if they can take it. Then if they can you think, well, this person’s cool or whatever, and then if they look at you like you’re crazy it’s like "I don’t wanna have anything to do with this person anyway..."
What about the reference to Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf (“The mousey girl screams 'Violence! Violence!’/ She gets hysterical, because they’re both so mean/ and it’s my favourite scene/ but the cruelty’s so predictable/ and it’s my favourite scene.”)
KB: I always loved that play and I always loved that movie, just the dynamic between the two of them and imagining a relationship which can go through such an incredible tumultuous rollercoaster emotionally. Just the shared fantasy life that the two of them have in that play - the hysterical pregnancy and everything - it makes you realise how complex relationships can be when you put these highly intelligent human beings together. We have so many devices that we use to hurt each other and help each other and I just think that’s really interesting.
But you and Nina were reconciled by the time of Hissing Fauna’s release?
KB: We got back together just before it was came out and Nina was extremely embarrassed – well maybe not embarrassed but just like, "Oh this all our dirty laundry you’re sharing with the world, and that’s just your side of the story so it’s not really fair." So she felt a little bit awkward but also she really loved it, and was really touched by the emotion behind it and so she was extremely supportive.
She never asked me to change a certain lyric and I wouldn’t have anyways. She’s an artist as well, she’s a crazy woman so she’s not afraid to expose her inner-life with the world and I think she can appreciate that aspects of art will make you uncomfortable. Especially if you’re speaking from personal experiences and sharing your actual thoughts with the world, so it’s not all just fantasy-based. There’s always a danger that someone’s gonna make fun of you for it or you might feel overexposed but in a way I think the best art comes from that place. People can identify with it more; if it’s too skilfully managed you lose a bit of the rawness that makes art great.
With the follow-up album (Skeletal Lamping) did you worry that your alter-ego Georgie Fruit would be seen as just such a ‘skilfully managed’ contrivance?
KB: Definitely, I mean at first I had the Georgie Fruit character as a songwriting device but it was such a strong pull. Somehow there was this force that was just pushing me to write these songs and they seemed so different from anything I’d done before. So it helped me to have this device where I could say well, it’s not really me it’s Georgie Fruit. But then I realised no, it’s completely me, I couldn’t possibly do it if it wasn’t me.
I don’t really believe in personas being somehow disconnected or different from the artist. The art’s completely that person, there’s no escaping it. You’re not capable of producing something that doesn’t come from your psyche. So I kind of realised Georgie was just another part of me, I stopped thinking about him like that. It’s all just part of Kevin Barnes, whatever that is.
I like the way you’ve run with the funk and R&B vibe on the last few records – psychedelia seems to be such a white preserve nowadays, which is weird given how it was kind of joined at the hip with funk in the late ‘60s.
KB: When I first started getting into music it was total R&B stuff that I was listening to and then I started getting really into The Beatles, and then via The Beatles, The Pretty Things, White Noise, Os Mutantes and stuff like that. And then of late I’ve been way more interested in ‘70s soul and R&B. Parliament was a great discovery for me, they were taking stuff like ‘60s doo-wop and ‘70s funk and psychedelia, acid rock and blending it all together into this crazy collage, and having so much fun theatrically with all the visuals and stuff. So they’ve been a real guiding light for us, because it’s not just superficially interesting, there’s also a great emotional depth to the songs as well because it’s coming from those soul roots. George [Clinton] was a member of a doo-wop group in his early days. So what we’re doing now is taking a lot of inspiration from those guys.
The Janelle Monae thing has been cool [she features on the track ‘Enemy Gene’ from False Priest] – I feel like you guys are aiming at similar things, albeit from quite different starting points...
KB: I think we’re very much the same creature in a lot of ways. We’re on tour right now together, we’re combining our shows. We still want both artists to have a really strong identity, but it’s amazing how much we have in common, there’s this desire to kind of cross-pollinate and it’s exciting ‘cos you never know what’ll happen from night to night. There are just so many ideas bouncing back and forth. We do a thing where a member of Janelle’s art collective, Roman John Arthur, is coming onstage and singing a couple of verses of my songs. What happens is I pretend I’m about to sing a song and then the performance artists come and grab me and hold me back. Then Roman comes from backstage and sings the song while I’m pretending to be really upset, like, "What’s going on?"
We’re incorporating all these crazy ideas into the show and having a laid-back fun attitude towards everything, it’s not like an ego-trip or anything. In a way it’s very much like when I watch the old Parliament shows, Clinton was an important part of it but he wasn’t a lead singer, rock-star archetype you know, he was more like a director. And he realised he had all the insanely gifted people around him so they all should have their moment in the sun. That’s the way performances should be. It’s kind of funny because most performances you go see a show and it’s so scripted in a way, you know what’s gonna happen, the artists know what’s gonna happen, the lighting guy knows what’s gonna happen, it’s almost set up like a Broadway play. But we’re trying to keep that spontaneous element of just doing what you feel like doing on any given night. Just keeping things alive.
It’s also good to hear an artist sing about sex in such frank and bizarre fashion. We’re bombarded with sexual imagery nowadays but beyond the surface raunch people don’t seem to have an awful lot to say on the subject.
KB: Well I mean a lot of it is very clichéd. It’s all ‘I love you baby’ but there’s no intellectual involvement, it’s just very physical or visceral or whatever. There’s no thought about sexual politics. It’s like people are on autopilot when they’re writing pop songs, they’re just like, "Well I want people to feel sexy" or whatever and then they go from there. It’s rare that people actually spend time with lyrics.
Do you feel like Lady Gaga offers something ‘other’ in that sense, or is she just an insanely ambitious hack?
KB: I think she does a lot of things really, really well. Visually she’s amazing, superficially she’s great. And also the people she’s trying to speak to are the underdogs, she’s trying to give her voice to the awkward people of the world in a way and I think that’s beautiful. But musically she’s definitely hitting on a very mainstream level, it doesn’t match her persona at all. When I first heard her I thought it was like Pet Shop Boys song or something – I mean I like Pet Shop Boys, but it wasn’t really what I was expecting, I was expecting something more artsy, something a bit more Grace Jones at least. But it comes across as too safe, but you know that’s why she’s so popular, she can appeal to Jersey Shore people and teenage art kids at the same time so you know, she’s obviously doing something right.
How would you say Georgie Fruit’s role has shifted on the new record?
KB: I think he’s just kind of immersed into my head, I don’t even think about him anymore. It’s like he doesn’t exist. He’s just melted into it, he’s a part of the collage.
And the title, False Priest, you’re on record as saying has to do with a kind of "false policing of the self"?
KB: It’s a funny thing; with a lot of conceptual or fine artists, so much of the creative process is connected to explanation, you know it looks just like canvas with a red dot on it, but it’s actually it’s something completely different. But for me, somehow an idea gets in my head and I don’t really even question it or even think about. I had this thing when I was making song titles for Hissing Fauna, and I was reading these Dylan Thomas poems just to get into a creative frame of mind. I think he has an amazing way of structuring sentences together, so after I’d read a poem I’d just close my eyes and let that influence my own consciousness.
I came up with ‘Skeletal Lamping’, ‘The Controller Sphere’ and ‘False Priest’ during that writing session and for some reason those three didn’t seem like song titles, they had this weird aura about them.
Do you feel with the new record you’ve been able to engage more with the outside world after the introspection of the last two?
KB: I’m always trying to be creative, I’m always trying to pay attention to ideas and be observant. So I don’t really think about whether I’m more or less connected to reality. It sounds really pretentious but I don’t really remember writing or recording the songs especially, because you get so absorbed in the process.
But there is a bit of anticlerical sentiment in there, for example...
KB: I was raised Catholic, it’s my mom’s religion and like any good mother she said, "That’s your religion as well"... I’m joking. But you know how it is with mothers, like, "You’re my child, you were baptised so this is your religion, this is your faith." How ironic. It’s a strange world for sure, but kind of fascinating as well. It’s like a comic book in a way, it’s hard to believe it actually exists and that people actually believe in this stuff, all the superheroes in there like the Pope. It’s hilarious to me, that the Pope is the voice of God and has these powers, he’s not just a man who takes shits every day like anyone else. He’s just a man, he’s not anything! It makes me realise how much we have to mature intellectually, spiritually, emotionally to get to a point where we’re really just focused on reality and not mysticism. I mean as an artist I can appreciate mysticism, but I’m a realist and I’m not about to go believing in my fantasies.
If you were to set up your own religion Alan Moore-style what would it be like?
KB: I guess it would be something in line with progressive humanism, where we just realise that we don’t have any divinity looking out for us so we have to look out for each other. In a way that is God, by caring for each other we’re able to create God amongst ourselves.
Of Montreal play Koko in Camden tonight